The crew of a US Air Force (USAF) Boeing KC-135 Stratotanker recorded video of a rare weather phenomenon known as St Elmo’s fire while evacuating ahead of a powerful tropical cyclone.

The tanker jet from MacDill AFB in Tampa, Florida was being relocated from the coastal air base on 29 August as Hurricane Idalia travelled north through the Gulf of Mexico.

Idalia made landfall on the Florida peninsula on 30 August, bringing “life-threatening storm surge and dangerous winds” of up to 113kt (209 km/h), according to the USA’s National Weather Service.

While flying through the leading edge of the storm system, the KC-135 crew from the 50th Air Refueling Squadron (ARS) recorded, through the cockpit windscreen, video of St Elmo’s fire forming around their aircraft.

The USAF describes St Elmo’s fire as a “weather phenomenon in which luminous plasma is created in an atmospheric electric field”.

The conditions that create the lightning look-a-like are similar to those that generate thunderstorms – and St Elmo’s fire is typically observed before or during such electrical storms.

The plasma events have been recorded for hundreds of years by seafaring mariners and are not considered hazardous to aviation.

As a precaution ahead of Idalia, the USAF on 28 August ordered the limited evacuation of MacDill AFB, including of some aircraft. The procedure is common ahead of severe weather.

“All aircraft on the installation have been evacuated/secured in preparation for Hurricane Idalia,” MacDill AFB said in a social media post on 29 August.

In 2018, Hurricane Michael caused $4.7 billion worth of damage to Tyndall AFB in Florida’s Panhandle region – including to some of the USAF’s most-advanced aircraft.

Seventeen Lockheed Martin F-22 stealth fighters that could not be evacuated ahead of that Category 5 storm sustained damage, but were eventually repaired and returned to service.

See video from the KC-135 evacuation flight here: